10 Terrific Summer Reads: Report From 20 Paws Ranch


DUST JACKET AND FRONT BINDING OF TURING’S CATHEDRAL

I inhale books like moviegoers inhale popcorn, and am fortunate enough to have the time to devour about one book a week. The following 10 reads are particularly noteworthy, in my view, most are available in used paperback editions for a song through Amazon for or can be ordered from your local library through Inter Library Loan.

ANNALS OF THE FORMER WORLD (2000) is John McPhee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning account of traveling back and forth across the U.S. on Interstate 80, which roughly parallels to 40th parallel, often in the company of geologists who open the world beneath and beside the highway for he and the reader. From the Palisades overlooking the George Washington Bridge to the Golden Gate, McPhee writes about the geology we only catch glimpses of from a speeding automobile. He pretty much skips Missouri and Nebraska (b-o-r-i-n-g) and pauses especially long in geology-rich Wyoming.

THE ART OF FIELDING (2011) is the best baseball novel since forever. While the book is ostensibly about baseball and lovers of the game will be held in thrall by Chad Harbach’s deft descriptions of America’s one-time passtime, it is most of all an intimate and beautifully told tale of how a single pitch in the climactic game of a season profoundly effects the fates of five very different people who are forced to confront their deepest hopes, anxieties and secrets.

She sat on the throne of Peter the Great and ruled the largest empire on earth. She was intelligent, well read, had a quick wit and was a shrewd judge of character, was open minded but wielded the power of life and death. She was Catherine II of Russia, and her extraordinary life is vividly brought to life in CATHERINE THE GREAT: PORTRAIT OF A WOMAN (2011), a magisterial biography by Robert Massie, who has spent almost a half century studying czarist Russia.

Erik Larson’s THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY: MURDER, MAGIC, AND MADNESS AT THE FAIR THAT CHANGED AMERICA (2004) was on best seller lists for months and it is easy to see why. You know how the stories of the twin protagonists — the architect responsible for the construction of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago and a charismatic serial killer who preyed on visitors to the fair — will turn out from the opening pages, yet this still is a chilling and compelling read.

There have been a tsunami of books about George Washington in recent years, but none has captured the great man with such wit and charm than JOHNNY ONE-EYE: A TALE OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION (2009). Never mind that Jerome Charyn’s account of Manhattan Island during the Revolutionary War, save for the broad historical overlay and the deeds of familiar figures, is apocryphal from start to finish. It is a hoot. Or as the Brits might say, a rum tale.

Manning Marable, an eminent Columbia University professor and prolific author of books on race and racism, died a mere three days before publication of his brilliant MALCOLM X: A LIFE OF REINVENTION (2011), a long overdue corrective to Alex Haley’s Autobiography of Malcom X, which Marable found is rife with factual errors and inaccuracies, as well as accounts of Malcolm X’s life based less on the historic record than what Malcolm wanted people to believe about him.

When a load of rubber bath toys plummeted into the northern Pacific Ocean from a storm-tossed container ship in 1992, the toys eventually washed up on coastlines from Alaska to California to Massachusetts. For Donovan Hahn, it was an opportunity to set out on a series of seagoing adventures long on introspection, as well as laughs, that would culminate in an unalloyed joy — MOBY DUCK:THE TRUE STORY OF 28,800 BATH TOYS LOST AT SEA AND OF THE BEACHCOMBERS, OCEANOGRAPHERS, ENVIRONMENTALISTS AND FOOLS, INCLUDING THE AUTHOR, WHO WENT IN SEARCH OF THEM (2011).

No less an authority than chillmeister Stephen King describes SWAMPLANDIA! (2011) as “brilliant, funny, original . . . also creepy and sinister.” Karen Russell, not yet 30 years old, has written a darned good but not quite great book about a family of alligator wrestlers in South Florida’s now almost destroyed wilderness and the coming of age of three young innocents whose trials by water and fire are extraordinarily gripping.

I sometimes felt like my head was going to explode as I waded through TURING’S CATHEDRAL: THE ORIGINS OF THE DIGITAL UNIVERSE (2011), a sometimes highly technical book by George Dyson, the son of famed physicist Freeman Dyson. He chronicles in gripping detail the mesmerizing cast of character who worked at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study and created, among other things, the first computers while wrestling with the ethical aspects of their military research and development work, which included the basic research that led to the hydrogen bomb.

By my lights, Danish writer Peter Høeg is the best practitioner of Arctic Noir, and his deeply suspenseful Smilla’s Sense of Snow and The Quiet Girl are among the very best of that genre. But Høeg breaks the mold with THE WOMAN AND THE APE (1996), the story of the wife of an eminent behavioral scientist and a 300-pound ape that in the end is a searching quest for the nature of love, freedom and humanity.

Please feel free to recommend your own summer reads.

Shaun Mullen is an award winning journalist and blogger. “Report From 20 Paws Ranch,”
which is the name of his mountain hideaway, appears on Mondays
.